Hope against hope: the "sojournal" of a Peace Corps volunteer
By Justin Garland '03
In November of 2003, Justin Garland ’03 joined the ranks of 32 Puget Sound graduates currently serving as Peace Corps volunteers. His assignment: Swaziland, the smallest country in Africa, one of the only remaining absolute monarchies in the world, and a nation of 1 million in which more than 38 percent of adults are HIV-positive. Each month during his two years there, Justin took the time to collect his thoughts and send to family and friends a remarkably honest and insightful account of his experience. What follows are excerpts from those letters—the emotional highs and lows, the personal doubt, the frustration with Peace Corps and government bureaucracies, and the inexpressible joy and heartache of making friends and then watching them die.
Sanibonani boNkhosi! Greetings from Swaziland! After 10 weeks of training in the northernmost region of the country, and upon taking the long-winded oath administered by the U.S. ambassador, I am now officially a Peace Corps volunteer.
We spent the morning touring the Peace Corps offices, the U.S. Embassy, and various guest houses in the capital city of Mbabane. At around 12:30 a circa-1975 chartered diesel bus dropped us off downtown for an afternoon of shopping for brooms, basins, and other household items before we were to ship off to site the next morning. Having lived for too long on maize meal and gravy, many of us decided to splurge on the quasi-Indian food at the Tandoori Grill. Just as we sat down to lunch, the skies opened up and started pouring down rain. By the time we’d finished our meal, much of the town, including the main bridge across the river, stood under water. (News reports today say that several people were washed away by the flash floods!) As a result, Peace Corps delayed our departure to site in order to let the country get back on its feet.
December 12, 2003
I’ve had a rough week of settling in to my new site. There were moments when I actually considered packing up my stuff and heading home, but as of today I’m looking forward instead of homeward.
I think that my doubts, fears, and helplessness stemmed from being so rapidly and completely immersed in my new life. In the course of one week, I lost the support of other American volunteers and was thrown headfirst into a setting where no one even understood the words coming from my mouth. My host family was convinced that I couldn’t cook for myself. (A common Swazi saying: Men don’t have hands!) I couldn’t get more than five minutes of alone time. Somewhere in the move from trainee to volunteer, Justin Garland got lost. In attempting to fit in, I momentarily forgot that I am indeed an American who does “odd” things. Now that I’ve begun to establish myself as an individual who can cook for himself and walk himself to meetings, things have begun to look up.
I had a meeting last week with a youth group (18- to 25-year-olds) from the inkhundla (roughly equivalent to the county government). The meeting was supposed to start at 11. Feeling smug about having figured out “Swazi time,” I decided to show up fashionably late. I arrived at 11:30 and still had to sit by myself for almost an hour until the second person arrived at 12:20. The meeting finally got started around 12:45.
I’d been invited to the meeting to assist the group in writing a constitution. I’d planned an hour-long interactive lesson about creating a mission statement and objectives. I wasn’t very far into the presentation when I began to realize that goal-setting was a completely foreign idea to the youth. The “American” principles (democracy, goal-setting, etc.) that have been ingrained in me from a very early age are just not as obvious to Swazis. This country has been operating without a constitution for years. In this environment, goal-setting is neither valued nor necessary. As I obstinately trudged ahead with my presentation, I could sense that the Swazis were humoring me. They saw no need to establish a set of objectives for their group. They were simply interested in the perks that came with getting recognized by the national youth organization. Changes in perspective don’t happen immediately, and I can only hope that by continuing to work with this group they will grow to see significance in many of the values I take for granted.
December 24, 2003
As I begin to get more comfortable with my life in Swaziland, the magic and awe slowly fade. People write me letters saying they can’t imagine the amazing life I’m living, but if you asked me now I would say there is nothing extraordinary about it. I no longer even think about the fact that there is no running water and that oftentimes I have to chase chickens and lizards out of the outhouse. My perception of life here has gradually and unnoticeably progressed from “hardship” to routine. I don’t know if this transition is good or bad, but part of me wishes I could wake up each morning, look out my window, and feel the same surge of emotions I felt upon seeing Swaziland—in all its dirt and poverty—for the first time. I want to be aware of the beauty and the squalor rather than just intuit its existence.
Still, every now and then I am presented with the unexpected gift of beauty. Yesterday, while sitting inside the main house studying SiSwati, Sakhile (a 5-year-old) purposefully walked into the room and opened the “refrigerator.” I put refrigerator in quotes because it has never worked and merely acts as a storage closet for the hammer and flashlight. Sakhile opened the flap in the door—the flap that in most fridges covers the butter—and pulled out a bewildered, but very much alive, finch-like bird. Then, holding the small bird in his hand, Sakhile marched out of the house. As far as I could tell, everyone else in the room was as dumbfounded as I was. It’s almost better that I never found out how the bird got in the butter container or what Sakhile intended to do with it. The beauty was in the innocence, and I suspect that these are the kinds of moments that will sustain me for the next two years.
Two months at site. Two months! In those two months I’ve figured out how to boil my drinking water, then heat my bath water by setting the boiling pot in a basin of cold water. I’ve discovered that a little sand in the bottom of a pot set on the stove top makes a great oven for baking bread and pies. Through trial and error, I’ve figured out the exact amounts of dry oatmeal, rice, beans, etc., required for feeding one person with no leftovers. I’ve learned that one can, in fact, live comfortably without a refrigerator, that the BBC only comes through on the shortwave when the skies are clear, and that electricity is no more reliable than catching a glimpse of a shooting star—maybe you’ll see it, maybe you won’t. I’ve also learned that buses that are supposed to come at 10 often don’t arrive until well after noon, and when someone says “Let’s meet at 9,” they really mean 2.
I haven’t done much teaching about HIV. I haven’t created any jobs. I haven’t even located the nearest clinic for HIV testing (although rumor has it there’s one in Hlathikulu). Instead, I’ve been running around buying dishcloths and basins. I’ve been meeting important community members. I’ve been watching Stone Cold Steve Austin’s return to WWE wrestling with a group of young Swazi men. (WWE is almost its own religion in Bhanganoma. Every Sunday night from 5–6 p.m. at kaZwane—the one TV in town, assuming there’s power.)
School was supposed to start two weeks ago. Families from all over the valley went to town to buy school clothes and supplies. Children who attend boarding schools returned to their campuses. Teachers came back to the teachers’ housing. Then, 25 hours before the first bells were set to ring in the new school year, the Ministry of Education announced that school would be delayed by one week, due to the fact that workers hadn’t finished weeding the king’s fields. The head teacher at my local primary school only heard the announcement on the bus radio on the way to work. He didn’t know any details but trusted the government-run radio station enough to enforce the delay.
I overheard a joke the other day (maybe this won’t be funny to anyone but me): Peace Corps volunteers who go to Asia come back spiritually aware. PCVs who go to Latin America come back politically aware. PCVs who go to Africa come back laughing. Really all I can do is sit back, relax, and laugh at the way things happen (or don’t happen) here.
Three weeks ago, my family threw a party for the ancestors. The story, as I heard it, goes like this: My host father, who is a truck driver, was in a serious auto accident in November. He survived relatively unscathed. My family, believing that the spirits of the ancestors had protected him, decided to throw one hell of a party to honor the ancestors. The family killed a cow (a big deal in Swazi culture) and fermented barrels of tjwala (homemade corn beer). Sunday rolled around and, instead of going to church, everyone who’s anyone came to our house to celebrate the Dludlu family ancestors. There were four courses, each solely of beef. In the first round of beef, the adult men—and only the men—took huge, satiating bites of the cow’s head as it was passed around the circle. Interspersed with the beef eating and tjwala drinking, there was much traditional dancing and all-around camaraderie. I kept telling myself it was just like a Sunday family BBQ back in the States, except the whole family, living and dead, was invited to this one.
I finished reading The Great Gatsby last night. A rereading, actually. It’s refreshing to have time to go back and savor all those books that I rushed through in high school. Fitzgerald concludes Gatsby with the lines: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And one fine morning—”
Today, driving to Nhlangano, the bus passed an outcropping of rock that I’ve passed by 100 times. This morning, for the first time, I noticed it had been graffitied in green spray paint with the words “safa iAIDS.” The SiSwati sentence translates as “We have all died from AIDS.”
Tense is critical in Bantu languages. The graffitieur chose the narrative past tense—used to describe events that have already taken place. I imagined the culprit’s depressing vision of eerily prophesying the future. As if, a thousand years from now, an archaeologist would be able to understand a whole society’s extinction just by reading this graffiti.
It’s a rough analogy, but the green spray paint drew me back to Gatsby’s green light at the end of the pier. Swaziland seems to be limping toward its future, reaching out its arms, running faster, yet never quite able to grasp prosperity because of a disease called HIV. And yet one fine morning … just maybe we will overcome this.
I’ve spent a lot of time at funerals. There was a nine-day stretch in mid-March where I attended four funerals in my community.
All Swazi funerals involve a night vigil—a group of people gathered to keep the body company on this final night on earth. The body is buried just before sunrise. Because attending a funeral requires waking at 3:30 or 4 a.m., I’ve also taken my share of catnaps this month.
At some point, I realized that in my entire 22 years before coming to Swaziland, I had only attended two funerals. Suddenly I find myself attending twice as many in a week and a half. Of those four, two were for people under the age of 30. And the most disconcerting part of all is that the sheer number of funerals isn’t disconcerting to the Swazis. Death has become such an integral part of weekly life that no one gives it a second thought.
The sign read “Bhanganoma Youth In Progress Volleyball Tournament, Saturday, July 24 at 10 a.m., the volleyball pitch near kaDludlu across the road from Mavukutfu Primary School, each team must have males and females, to register see Sabelo Mavimbela.”
I typed the sign on MS Word, adorned it with a silly clip art of a small boy playing volleyball, and made several copies. At one of the youth meetings, I gave each member two copies and some sticky tack to put the signs up in conspicuous places around the community. One ended up above the door at the local general store. Another on the rock outcropping that doubles as the bus stop. A third on an electricity pole along a secondary, but well-traveled, road. As of the registration deadline on Thursday, five teams had registered, there were nightly marathon practice sessions, and the community was abuzz with speculation about who would win. Our publicity ploy had paid off.
On Friday, as Sabelo and I were returning from our weekly journey to the soup kitchen for orphans, we passed the sign on the electricity pole. We’d noticed it and commented about it on the walk to the kitchen, but upon returning, Sabelo took the sign down. I wasn’t paying much attention as he tore his name out of the bottom left corner.
Ten minutes later we arrived at the store, returned our reusable Coke bottles, and left. On the way out, Sabelo grabbed the volleyball tournament sign that was hanging in the window. He again tore his name off the poster and threw the rest onto the ground. I thought he was just taking the signs down because registration was over, but then he ate the piece of paper with his name. I asked him why. He said that it wasn’t good for his written name to be in circulation because someone might use it to conjure a spell on him. It would be disastrous if his name fell into the wrong hands. I hadn’t even thought twice about writing Sabelo’s name on the poster when I made it, and yet, in a completely different cultural context, I did something that was downright dangerous!
Despite being an overwhelming success, the volleyball tournament itself also had a couple of good stories. The morning of the tournament, I decided to set off on the 5-minute walk from my house at around 10, knowing full well that no one else would show up until 11 or so, but at the same time wanting to set a good example of timeliness. I waited alone at the pitch for almost 45 minutes. By 11 there were half a dozen people mingling around. The early-comers decided that the volleyball pitch needed new poles for the net (despite the fact that there was nothing visibly wrong with the old poles that had been in use since before my arrival in the community). I didn’t entirely understand their logic but also wanted this to be their tournament, so I didn’t interfere.
At 11:30 four people set off for the half hour walk to the forest to chop down two trees. (Keep in mind that the tournament was supposed to start at 10.) By 12:30 we could see them dragging two poles down the mountain, although it was almost 1 by the time they arrived. The poles were in the ground by 1:20. In the interim, other participants had chopped grass and ingeniously made boundary lines using ash. The first game started around half past one, and the championship was decided just before dark. At one point I counted 50-plus spectators (not including the participants) all dressed in their Sunday best! Judging by the turnout, you’d have thought it was the biggest event to happen in Bhanganoma in many years. And, you know, maybe it was.
I’m standing on a dying rooster as its life twitches away. At first the severed head and body twitch in unison, connected on some invisible wavelength. Blood runs almost imperceptibly into the dirt. The convulsions last longer than I’d expected—even to the point where my ankles, twisted at peculiar angles due to the body of the rooster, begin to ache. Then, after a time span that, had it been a commercial during the Super Bowl would have cost millions, there is no movement. As the life seeps from the bird, I morph from being a vital restraining mechanism to the weird white guy who’s standing on the main course. Following the children’s orders, I step down from my perch upon the chicken. As I do, the headless body springs to its feet, hops two steps, then falls back to the ground with a visually stunning, yet audibly imperceptible thud. I manage to conceal my surprise. I don’t squeal in fear, despite the urging of my city-boy instincts. Instead, I watch in utter fascination. The children, knowing all along that the chicken still had some fight left, point at me and laugh.
I shudder in much the same way the chicken performed his dramatic death throes. I’m surprised that the taking of a life is so unceremonious. I don’t know what I’d expected, but certainly not this. I remind myself that thousands have preceded this doomed chicken, and thousands will follow. Maybe the sheer numbers make it impossible to honor death with a ceremony.
From my window I can see nearly every house in the community laid out in front of me like a deceivingly peaceful backdrop to disaster. Every morning of late, the arrogant American in me crawls from underneath his mosquito net and shuffles, dusty eyed, to the door. He intends to open the door to scream words of warning: “Damn it! Don’t you people see what is happening to you?”—as if it’s my job to save the world. But the chill of the doorknob, or the light peeking through the crack in the door, or the cold cement on bare feet shakes the arrogant American from his trance and talks him down off his high horse. And suddenly I find myself, reembodied, wondering what to do with this day, knowing that alienation and screaming aren’t the solution.
The community outside my door has just over 1,000 residents. This past weekend, as is the case almost every weekend, I had to choose between funerals. I chose the 26-year-old who has cared for her seven younger siblings ever since their parents died two years ago, over the 3-year-old who coughed himself to death. These aren’t decisions I’m accustomed to making. Every weekend is consumed by digging graves and cooking for the dead. Churches skip weeks at a time because everyone is recovering from funerals. The weekly migration of shovel-toting young men doesn’t strike anyone (but me) as odd. The same young men who carry the shovels and dig the graves usually talk right through the funeral. The women who cook laugh at their own jokes rather than the pastor’s. Sometimes the father or the son of the deceased will ask the men and women to show respect, but more often than not they carry on without reprimand.
I stand in a dying country as its life twitches away. Blood runs almost imperceptibly into dirt. This is a world in which 7-year-old orphans attend funerals, not because they wish to honor the deceased, but because it is often the only meal they’ll eat all week. The taking of a life is so unceremonious. I try to remind myself that thousands have preceded us, and thousands will follow. Maybe the sheer numbers make it impossible to honor death with a ceremony.
Sitabile is pregnant.
My 26-year-old host sister is preparing to have her fourth child. As they say in Swaziland, all four of her children will have “different surnames,” which is just a fancy way of saying there are four children by four different fathers. And a new child means another mouth to feed, another child to eventually send to school. This new addition will bump the total up to 15 people living off of one truck driver’s salary of approximately $300 per month, and my family is one of the wealthier families in the community.
In addition to being my host sister whom I’ve grown to love, Sitabile is also an active member of Bhanganoma Youth In Progress, a volunteer at the local Neighborhood Care Point for orphans, and a trained peer educator. She cannot claim ignorance about condoms, HIV transmission, or AIDS prevalence rates. I’ve made it a point to make condoms available in the community. I’ve encouraged her and other young women to say “No!” if they don’t want sex. And yet she is pregnant with her fourth child. Given the nationwide HIV infection rates of 38 percent (even higher in the 20–29 age group), Sitabile’s odds aren’t very good.
Every Peace Corps volunteer probably has a story about a moment of disillusionment, a moment when everything they’ve been working toward is brought into question, a moment when they are forced to reconsider everything they thought they knew. How fitting that this moment happens exactly halfway through my service.
It’s certainly no secret that HIV is killing the country. Sometimes I let myself believe that people just lack the information to protect themselves. But then I’m shocked to discover that it’s not lack of information, but rather a lack of motivation. The youth have the knowledge. But there is a disconnect between knowledge and action. Knowing everything they do about HIV, the youth still have unprotected sex. How is this a battle we can win? We must reassess where we’re concentrating our effort. The first task, however, is to figure out where we were misguided, and I have just such an opportunity for in-depth insight with Sitabile. I must find a way to overcome the language and gender barrier to dig into Sitabile’s mind. Let that be my task for the month of December. And in digging deeper, I’ll hope to climb up the steep slope, out of the pit of disillusionment.
Twelve hours away from where I sit right now is an idyllic Mozambican beach. Adolescent locals balance red coolers of lobster and shrimp on their heads, selling a pound of prawns for less than a cup of Starbucks coffee. Younger children sell a dozen shell necklaces in a day. Christmas Day is spent playing soccer on the beach with the locals. I’m not exaggerating when I claim even now to be able to smell the warm Portuguese bread being sold on the street corner.
I remind myself that, yes, I did experience these vivid pictures against the intense blue and white backdrop of ocean and sand. Less than a week ago I was at a place where the only worry was remembering to reapply sunscreen every few hours, the only commitment was getting to the boat in time to go snorkeling with 30-foot whale sharks, and the biggest disappointment was finding someone else already asleep in the hammock overlooking the ocean. Dinner every night was an insouciant occasion, a meal of fresh squid or barracuda shared among light-hearted friends. The world was small and jovial and carefree.
In a refreshed state of mind, feeling equally tanned and salty, I returned to my community eager to hear about everyone’s holiday experiences. As has become an uplifting custom, my 16-year-old sister ran to meet me at the bus and offered to help carry one of my many bags. I immediately asked about her Christmas. She responded that she didn’t enjoy Christmas one bit because “everyone was gone over the holiday.” This struck me as odd because Swazi families, like American families, usually spend the holidays together. I inquired as to why she’d spent Christmas alone, and she responded that she had to stay home and watch the youngest children while everyone else attended funerals.
The community of Bhanganoma buried six people in the time I was gone. The 25-year-old chairperson of the youth association told me “these days are not good. On the 19th I was burying my sister. On the 26th I was burying my aunt, and on the 1st I was burying my cousin. I have not had Christmas yet. Christmas is supposed to be happy, but I have not been happy for some time.”
I have tried to reconcile the fact that I spent Christmas at the beach, lounging in the sun, sipping drinks decorated with paper umbrellas, while a young man my age buried three of his family members. This juxtaposition demands that I acknowledge my privileged life. Sometimes I can almost forget about the things that separate me from those around me. I can get happily lost in the idea that I’ve become a Swazi, that there’s no difference between me and the members of my community. Yet that image is shattered when I consider that I spent an average month’s salary in seven days at the tourist beach, or that I’ve never had to attend the funeral of a family member.
For the past few weeks I’ve felt like I have my nose against a wall that I can’t get over. This wall is no different from the other walls I’ve scaled in my time here. One would think each wall would get easier with experience. The more times you conquer something, the more familiar you are with how to do it, right? The thing that’s different in this equation is myself. I’m exhausted. I try to muster up the energy to climb over the wall, or at least look left and right for a way around it, but find a void where there used to be enthusiasm. I’m defeated and frustrated. I’m looking for a source of energy to propel me on, all the while listening to the voice in the back of my head (I can’t decide if it’s the voice of an angel or the devil!) that says: “You have given all you have. Ease up on yourself and let someone else take over.”
To compound the exhaustion, the Swazi press has spent the past few weeks reporting several disconcerting stories. I’ve learned that the king has purchased new BMWs for each of his wives, despite having purchased 13 new luxury cars for his 13 luxurious wives less than a year ago. The new Swazi lotto is installing a wireless computer network for selling tickets across the country. This expenditure seems grossly miscalculated, and whoever is in charge must, for lack of a better explanation, be oblivious to the fact that much of the Swazi population lives daily life without access to clean water or secure food.
It gets worse.
The prohibitive expense of televisions and the weak distribution infrastructure of newspapers make radio the most common medium in Swaziland. As a result, almost every household in the country heard the government-owned Swazi radio report that Americans created HIV in a laboratory as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign. The radio report was based on a magazine article printed in the November/December 2004 edition of Frank Talk: The True Nature of Life. The article claims that “the inventors [of HIV] … go around sponsoring free HIV tests and persuading the people to know their status … in order to know how many people are dying and to confirm the success of their hidden plan of ethnic cleansing.” It goes on to say that, by June of 1977, a U.S.-sponsored special virus program had “produced 15,000 gallons of AIDS” that was then dispersed to Africa under the guise of a smallpox vaccine. According to the article, in 1974 the “whole world agree[d] to secretly cull Africa’s population” through a “well-conceived technological strategy of ethnic cleansing” called AIDS. This magazine article would not have been widely read had it not been picked up by Swazi radio and reported to the nation as fact. The volunteers watched a year and a half of working to establish credibility unravel before their very eyes. Volunteers reported growing skepticism toward testing, even among those who had previously expressed interest in knowing their status. Other volunteers decided to pretend they were from Germany. The report left us questioning what we could do at a community level to combat a national media source that is intent on spreading misinformation.
Last month my nose was firmly against a wall that I wasn’t sure I could—or wanted to—get over. Now I’m leaning lazily with my back against the other side of that wall, and I’m not quite sure how I got here. At some point during the Jacobian wrestling match with myself, I looked up through the dust and saw I was on the other side of the wall. Only then did I realize that what I mistook for wrestling was actually climbing. I can now say that the view from this side is great. Stretching out before me is the entire community of Bhanganoma (greener than I’ve ever seen it!) and seven months (not nearly enough time!) to squeeze every last drop, search every hidden corner, and build every undiscovered friendship.
My memory is proglottidean, like the tapeworm, but unlike the tapeworm it has no head, it wanders in a maze, and any point may be the beginning or the end of its journey. I must wait for the memories to come of their own accord, following their own logic. That’s how it is in the fog. In the sunlight, you see things from a distance and you can change directions purposefully in order to meet up with something particular. In the fog, something or someone approaches you , but you do not know what or who until it is near.
— Umberto Eco, from “The Gorge”
As I ducked through the door, the smoke-filled interior of the kitchen gave way to an equally gray and disorienting predawn fog. I had stopped by the kitchen fire, hoping to store enough heat in my body and clothes to outlast the early morning chill.
As has become an almost farcical ritual, my on-time arrival guaranteed that I was also the first. I sat on a large boulder to wait. The community meeting space (umphakatsi in SiSwati) had an eerie, spine-chilling feel about it that morning. The cattle kraal’s twisted branches reached out at me through the fog. Disconcerted, I turned my back to the spindly, knotted fingers and stared mindlessly into a blank gray scrim that was concealing the valley below me.
By the time the fog burned off, nearly 20 people had gathered. I chatted with some of the young men. One of them brought an English composition, hoping for my feedback. Another asked about the weather in America this time of year. None of us were really sure why we’d been summoned, but in accordance with the prior day’s instructions we’d all brought various weed-clearing tools (scythes, machetes).
The Buchopho swept regally onto the scene, as if timing his entrance to correspond with my aversion to answering another question about finding a “sponsor in America” (an opaque and vague request that many Swazis revert to when conversation slows). With the Buchopho’s arrival, I expected an official declaration that the waiting should end and the as-yet-to-be-defined work should begin. (The Buchopho is the chiefdom’s elected representative who is expected to initiate and lead development projects within the community.)
Yet, 20 minutes and two sponsor inquiries later, we were still standing around. The more we stood around, the more I began to think that I’d missed something, that everyone else knew what we were waiting for and that I just hadn’t been able to phrase a question in the right way to get the answer I desired.
I was standing in a group of five or six young men, when everyone stopped and turned. Pointing with the first knuckle of his first finger, the young man who had brought his essay had spotted the Buchopho rambling down the road away from us, alone. With an impetuous shrug of their collective shoulders, 30 people gathered their tools and set off like a swarm in pursuit of the Buchopho, who already had a 100-yard head start on us.
As we set off, I asked one of my counterparts if I’d missed some magic signal.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“We don’t know. We’re just following the Buchopho. See?” as he pointed again with his knuckle at the determined leader ahead.
The crowd clumsily bumbled down the hill a few hundred yards behind the Buchopho. He turned off the road. Moments later, his followers bottlenecked onto the same single-file footpath, crossed a stream, and spilled out of the tall grass onto a homestead—just as the Buchopho received a yellow bucket of home-brewed traditional beer. I was in the back of the pack, so was unable to see the Buchopho’s expression as 30 of his followers spewed forth from the grass, but can imagine the surprise in his eyes (matched only by the surprise in ours!). The Buchopho, far from leading us to work, and completely unaware that we had followed him, thought he’d managed to sneak away for an early morning alcoholic refreshment.
The whole scene is a perfect allegory for many of the bigger issues facing Swaziland. A group of people blindly following their leader, never inquiring about (or even interested in) where they’re being led. This phenomenon happens on all levels, from the household level all the way up to the king. People place trust in their leaders, only to find that they’ve been led to a shebeen that sells homemade corn liquor just so the leader can quench his thirst at 8:30 in the morning.
Imagine if the leadership of this country used its influence to engage the citizenry in a massive fight against HIV, rather than to buy cars and beer for itself. Instead, I’m reminded of Eliot: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ out of this stony rubbish?”
The bus had been so packed that I hadn’t noticed Clement, but after we’d arrived in town the young man from the Bhanganoma youth group rushed up behind me, greeted me, and chastised me for not seeing him on the bus. I tried to use the 100-plus people who had been packed between me and him as my defense, but he didn’t buy it. He was well dressed, implying that he was not just planning on running errands in town. He obviously had something more important in mind. I had just intended to check my mail and buy some produce, but was sensing that I was rapidly getting drawn into whatever Clement had planned.
He took my hand and began leading me through town. (Swazi men have no problem holding hands with one another, a cultural trait I’ve become quite comfortable with.) He pulled me past the post office, past the small grocery store, past the butchery, past the dark bar where a group of men had already begun drinking at 10 in the morning. Soon we’d bypassed everything in town except the hospital.
As we arrived at the hospital gate—one of only five hospitals in a country of 1 million residents—he turned to me and simply asked: “Do you know where is the VCT (Voluntary Counseling and Testing )?” I had been expecting a visit to a sick relative, but instead Clement was interested in testing to know his HIV status. I stood aghast at his initiative, couldn’t really believe what he’d said. Encouraging people to test had so far been a thankless and fairly unrewarding task. It seemed that every time I brought up the subject of testing with someone, he or she inevitably replied that there’s no reason to get tested; ignorance is bliss. And suddenly, out of the blue, Clement was asking me to accompany him to find out his status.
Fortunately, I knew my way through the Hlathikulu hospital and navigated us efficiently to the VCT unit. There were about 15 people in line in front of us, all of them women, some with babies. I was worried that the wait time would outlast his courage to test. He paced the floor and patted his foot impatiently. I used the time to begin to prepare myself to deal with a possible positive reading. I’d woken up in a grocery-shopping mind-set and was now having to realign into possible counselor mode. I was probably as worried as Clement.
Two hours after our arrival, Clement was finally called into the closet-sized room. I waited in the hallway that doubles as a waiting room. The bench for the VCT was full with women waiting to test, so I walked up and down the hall, looking in open doors at crowded rooms of 20 emaciated, despondent patients lying on cots draped in yellowed sheets. Beside each cot on the floor was a palette of blankets where the patient’s family member or caretaker slept. The doctor walked from one bed to the next, knowing that almost every patient was HIV positive but with no one willing to tell him their status because of the lack of privacy. These are the conditions that await the 38 percent of this country that is HIV positive. The medical infrastructure is collapsing under the weight of this epidemic, and given the average eight-year lag time from infection to symptoms, the worst is yet to come.
I don’t feel comfortable disclosing Clement’s results. I’ve only told his story because he has proudly shared his experience of testing with the community. He knows he needs to be a role model and is vocally encouraging other young people to get tested. He’ll be the first to say that “your status is your business, so as long as you know your status!”
Seedlings were transplanted on Saturday at the youth garden. It was a day of great contentment. We popped caps off of one-liter Coke bottles, feeling the same ecstasy Andy Dufresne and his prisonmates in The Shawshank Redemption must have felt as they popped caps off their rooftop beers. We sat in the warm sun, drinking Coke, free to admire our work.
The garden has been in the works for almost my entire time at site. Creating it has been an agonizingly slow process that finally came to fruition. We were able to buy piping for irrigation this month. We bought over 300 meters of piping in town and strapped it to the top of the bus. We dug a trench, laid the pipe, plowed the land, and built seed beds. Donated seeds were planted in the beds, and, earlier this week, seedlings were transplanted into the fields.
Even more noteworthy, I have convinced the youth to keep their garden organic. The decision grew out of a discussion about not having enough money to buy fertilizer. I told them that they had all the fertilizer they needed in the cattle kraal, if only they’d gather it. I also argued that whatever chemicals they used would end up in the drinking water. By the time I got to the concept of a trench garden for conserving water, they were not only sold, but excited about organic gardening. There’s obviously no certifying body, nor any market demand for organic produce, so we’re undertaking a fairly thankless task, but the youth in the group want to do it for “the good of the community,” which I believe to be the noblest of reasons.
From the very beginning, the Peace Corps made it clear that our final months of service would probably be our most rewarding because it would take that long for projects to get rolling. At the time, though, I couldn’t believe that it would take a year and a half to get a garden set up. Saturday, sitting alongside rows of tomato and cabbage sprouts, I mused to myself that, given what I’ve learned about Swaziland during the past year and a half, I was pleasantly surprised the garden came together so quickly.
Almost two years ago I sat down on a sweltering Christmas Eve to write one of my earliest Swazi sojournals. I wrote about the process of learning to live in this country. I wrote about learning to arrive at meetings late in order to be on time. I wrote about heating bathing water with the pot of boiled drinking water. These subtleties that consumed my initial days at site have, over the course of my time in Swaziland, incubated into rituals.
I can hardly sleep comfortably in a bed without a mosquito net, not because I’m worried about malaria but because the ritual of climbing in and out has become so ingrained. These peculiar habits become comforting when so much is foreign. Now, as I face the imminent prospect of abandoning these habits in exchange for a much-anticipated homecoming, I am speechless. A blank page says more than a full one.
I’ve been struggling to write for the past few months and haven’t had any idea how to convey my thoughts to people who seem so far away. In addition to emotional extremes and the occasional flashes of what-the-hell-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life, I’m also having to come to grips with the fact that, upon my return, the people I interact with will never have seen nor will they comprehend my day-to-day life and the subtle experiences that have both plagued and beatified my time here in Swaziland. This prospect terrifies me.
I’m not sure if I’ve done any good. This isn’t just an idle self-deprecating comment. It’s a real concern that I’m certain all Peace Corps volunteers experience as their service comes to an end. What if I’ve worked two years for naught? To make matters worse, I am finding it difficult to convey this worry to people who haven’t seen what I’ve seen. I’m scared of their well-intentioned reassurances that I have indeed made a difference in the world when I myself am not so certain. It’s not that I’m regretful or indifferent about my time here. It’s just that I’m not sure I’ve done things the right way or made any lasting change. Part of me feels like I’ve just taken up space, kept my distance, and traveled from place to place in a metaphorical Popemobile.
I want Swaziland to be more than a variegated collection of nice anecdotes. I want it to have an overarching and unshakable meaning. I want to have no doubt that I was successful. I’m sure I’ll be able to assign meaning with time and distance, but right now I can’t see the forest for the trees.
I will be officially discharged on October 25. I have begun to tackle the mountain of tasks to complete before I leave Swaziland. I have to return Peace Corps property, to write final reports, and get final medical clearance. I’m working furiously on graduate school applications. But most importantly, I have to tie up loose ends in Bhanganoma. I have to say goodbye to the people who have generously played host for the past two years.
As I leave I’ll take some vivid memories of my last months here. Just last Sunday I was playing a dodgeball-esque game with the many children on my homestead, and, while pausing for a moment to appreciate the beauty of the moment, got whacked in the head with the ball.
We were using a ball made of plastic bags and about the size of a tennis ball. Two of the oldest children stood a distance away from each other with everyone else in between them. The two on the end tossed the ball back and forth to each other and every now and then tried to hit one of the children in the middle. The target children had two options: either dive out of the way of the ball or catch it. If anyone caught a ball thrown at them, all of the children who are out (as a result of getting hit) get to come running and squealing back into the center.
At one point the ball rolled away from Sibusiso. It gained momentum down a small hill and came to rest on the rocks marking an ancestor’s grave. Sibusiso raced after the ball, then pulled up short when he saw the predicament. At first I thought he didn’t want to go near the graves for fear of violating sacred space, but it turns out he just didn’t know how to grab the ball without pointing at least one finger directly at the grave.
In Swazi tradition it is taboo to point at a grave. One must always be careful where fingers are pointing in order to not offend the ancestors. This is why people point using their knuckles. It’s better to be safe than to be sorry.
I watched Sibusiso shift weight from foot to foot in his moment of consternation. Finally he bent down, keeping both hands in a tight fist, and using only his knuckles was able to wriggle the ball free of the rocks. His fingers never pointed at the grave. Two years ago I would not have known why he was making such a display. I stood there, proud of myself for deciphering such a cultural clue. I let my brain wander even further afield, until the ball hit me square in the side of the head. I came back to the present amid the children’s dulcet laughter, and I found my seat next to the others who had been hit. Together we energetically cheered on the remaining children to catch the ball and free us back into the game.
I could tell more stories about life in Swaziland, but it seems that every story will be tinged with sadness and guilt. I’m beginning to experience an emotion that I’ve tried hard to protect myself from, but on the eve of my departure I can’t help but feel guilty that I have the option to just pick up and go. There are so many people in this country who deserve a better life but can’t access it simply because they were unlucky to be born here instead of there. And I am packing up my four pairs of shoes and my computer and walking away. Sure, I’m excited about coming home. It will be so good to catch up with acquaintances, to tell firsthand stories of this place. But I’ll have to rely on the poet R.M. Rilke to lead me out of this letter—and this experience. Without him, doubt clouds my mind, guilt blurs my memory, and fear obscures my view. Yet, if I take a step back, Rilke assures me I have at the very least made a difference in my own life:
A Walk (translated by R. Bly)
My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has its inner light, even from a distance—
and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it, we already are;
a gesture waves us on, answering our own wave...
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.
Signing off from Swaziland…
Justin Garland returned to the United States in November. You can reach him at email@example.com.